Thursday, November 29, 2007

UNSUNG


Ken, yesterday I listened to “Stone Blues,” your first album for Prestige Records recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's place in Englewood Cliffs, NJ the last day in May 1960. The blues you played got inside me right away. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a personal conversation the way your horn was talking. You should be a household name like Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman because you had a unique way of blowing. You could make your alto laugh and cry in the same breathe, and the blues you served on "Stone Blues" were upbeat not the woeful variety.

In fact, I like "Stone Blues" more than “Looking Ahead,” your sophomore album that featured Eric Dolphy. The album felt like his date. Did Prestige want it that way? Back then, you were a newcomer. I read you didn't know Prestige had hired, bassist Sam Jones, pianist Walter Bishop Jr. and drummer Arthur Taylor for the date until you arrived at Van Gelder's place. I bet you were nervous surrounded by those greats.

Anyway, I listened to your blues tune “Cornballs,” the first track on “Stone Blues,” repeatedly. It’s an upbeat blues not one of those life-is-so-damn-rough blues. I liked the softness of your flute on the ballad “Blanche”. And how pianist Dizzy Sal--one of your running buddies from the Boston jazz scene--tiptoed down the piano keys. Ken, on this album you had the alto and flute singing.

It bothers me you weren’t more celebrated--more of a jazz icon.

I wonder if jazz critics and jazz historians considered you just another face in the crowd. That’s a question only they can answer. Or, was your timing bad? When you got to New York Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were popular. Making a name for yourself must have been difficult given the speed those guys were playing at.

To paraphrase jazz historian Joe Goldberg (he wrote the liner notes for Stone Blues) you had high expectations. You believed you could get steady work because you were a skilled musician with two degrees in music from the Boston Conservatory. To work regularly, you discovered, required a lot of hobnobbing.

Hobnobbing wasn’t your thing. It consumed too much time, and you had mouths to feed. To provide for your wife, Charlotte, and your sons, you worked at a Post Office and taught in the public schools. Forgive me, Ken, for bringing up those lean times. People need to know your sucess wasn't handed to you. You praticed, practiced until you developed a sound, an identity. The Ken McIntyre Sound. That what I call it.

There were good times, too. I bet you reminisced a lot about the first time you played with Dolphy. In 1959, you showed up at Minton Playhouse to hear Dolphy. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard asked if you brought your horn. It was in your car. Locked in the trunk. Hubbard made you fetch it because he wanted you to sit in. You wowed Dolphy, and he agreed to appear on “Looking Ahead”. What did Dolphy say to you after the gig, and how did you ask him to record with you?

I imagined it took place as the crowd was leaving Minton's. Hubbard and the other band memebers were packing up. Dolphy told you how good you were as he unhooked his alto from his neckstrap. Your horn was cooling off atop the house pinao.

"Man you played your ass off," Dolphy said.

"Thanks. I just came here to listen. I didn't know you wanted me to sit in. Charolette won't believe it.

"Is she your old lady,"

"Yeah."

"You pushed us to another level," Dolphy said

"I was real nervous. But after the second number it felt really natural like I've been playing with you for ever."

I damaged my horn trying to keep up with you, man," Dolphy said joking.

"I just got a recording contract with Prestige Records."

"I heard about that."

"Would you be interested in recording a few tunes with me?"

"Lets do it. Name the time, the place, the tunes, and I'll be there."

Dolphy praising and agreeing to record with you must have boosted your confidence. Let me stop talking about that night. It was a long 48 years ago. There're many highlights in the great career you had.

You made some wonderful music. Twelve albums, and it would take days to list all the great musicians who performed with you. The workshops you put on through The Contemporary African-American Music Organization (CAAMO), a music and performing arts educational organization, you started in 1983, help a lot of people. You were an accomplished, Ken. You should be a household name.
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